New bill would offer chance at parole for youthful offenders

The Illinois House of Representatives is considering a bill that would give young offenders the opportunity for parole. Despite earlier hopes of advocates, the bill would give the decision to the Prisoner Review Board, an agency whose decisions, an Injustice Watch review found, are often inconsistent and arbitrary.

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

The Prisoner Review Board’s office in Springfield, Illinois

The Illinois House of Representatives is considering a bill that would give young offenders the opportunity for parole, potentially expanding the role of the state’s Prisoner Review Board.

The bill is aimed at giving prisoners convicted of committing crimes before they turn 21 an opportunity to be released after proving they have been rehabilitated, the bill’s supporters say. U.S. Supreme Court rulings in recent years have deemed it unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

If passed, the bill would empower the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which includes 14 members appointed by the governor and one current vacancy, to consider parole for a new group of offenders. The board already makes parole decisions for 122 prisoners who were convicted before Feb. 1, 1978, when legislators abolished indeterminate sentencing in the state.

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Injustice Watch reported this week that the board handles those requests using an opaque and inconsistent decision-making process. Inmates who nearly won release one year went on to receive few votes in favor of their release the next, despite little change in their circumstances. The review also found that the board is often influenced by factors outside of the inmates’ control, such as the seriousness of the original crime and public opposition to an inmate’s release.

Despite those flaws, the board has almost complete discretion to decide cases; its decisions are not reviewable in court. National experts said many of the flaws uncovered in the Injustice Watch review are common to parole boards nationwide.

Thirty-five of the inmates who regularly come before the board to request parole were under 21 years old when they committed their crimes, according to Illinois Department of Corrections records. Almost all of them were convicted of murder, and all but three of the inmates have been in prison continuously since their conviction. The 32 inmates have been in prison for more than 42 years, on average.

Jobi Cates, executive director for Restore Justice Illinois and an advocate for the bill, expressed concerns about how the bill would be implemented. “We need a legitimate review of these cases,” she said, and not “a rubber stamp sort of process to keep people in the same place.”

Cates said the bill represents a compromise by advocates who for years pushed unsuccessfully for laws that would require periodic parole reviews of young offenders by judges instead of the Prisoner Review Board.

Under the 1978 sentencing law, inmates in Illinois must serve a set percentage of their time before being released on state supervision. The law largely eliminated traditional parole in Illinois, but the new bill would bring back that opportunity for young offenders. If the bill passes, qualifying inmates, depending on the seriousness of their crime, would need to serve 10 or 20 years of their sentence before coming up for parole consideration the first time.

The bill has already passed the state Senate, where sponsor Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said the legislation would give younger inmates a second chance, “when they are more mature and have demonstrated some ability to get their act straight, demonstrated some rehabilitation.”

As written, the bill would only go into effect for inmates convicted after the law is passed.

Unlike the way the board handles the aging inmates’ parole requests, reviewing a case every one, two, three or five years indefinitely, the new bill limits the number of times a young offender can request parole. For those offenders convicted of first-degree murder or aggravated sexual assault, only two parole attempts would be allowed: Once 20 years into the prisoner’s sentence, and once 10 years after that. For other eligible offenders, the first opportunity at parole would be 10 years into their sentence, with two more chances for parole at five-year increments.

The proposal would also require the board to consider young offenders’ growth and maturity during their time in custody, their “diminished culpability” because of their age, and the “hallmark features of youth.”

Harmon said if the bill passes, he wants to ensure the board focuses on factors related to juvenile development for the offenders’ parole requests. Current state law requires the board to have six appointed members with some experience in “juvenile matters,” and Harmon said he hopes to get more appointed. The bill would require the three-member board panels hearing most of the new cases to have at least two members with expertise in juvenile justice.

Cates said she and other advocates for the bill already lost several things they hoped would make it to the final draft, in addition to the decision being left to judges and not the board. Other issues Cates said had been lost in the process: A standard for evidence presented during hearings, an appeal process after parole decisions, and more thorough requirements for board members’ qualifications, like expertise in adolescent development, and a limit to the number of members with a law enforcement background.

The bill does keep one of Cates’ big goals: to provide an attorney to every young offender up for parole. The 122 inmates who currently face parole are not automatically provided attorneys by the board. Cates said that while the bill will move the issue forward, it does not go far enough.

“I won’t take away from the fact that no one, since 1978…not one bit of new opportunity for release has been issued to anybody,” Cates said.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, a sponsor of the bill in the House, said that lawmakers are planning on picking up discussion of the bill in the fall, that it has bipartisan support and that the State’s Attorney’s association is neutral on the bill. Currie said the bill expands the opportunity for parole to the next legitimate age group outside of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Life without parole is unconstitutional [for juveniles] but very long sentences are still permitted,” Harmon said. “I don’t think they make sense for the same reason life without parole doesn’t make sense.”